Last month, I presented  a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.
The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics  were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.
The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.
But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.
Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow .
Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.
You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.
 I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.
 See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.
 In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].